ABC News’ Arlette Saenz and Susan Archer report:
DES MOINES, Iowa — Abortion dominated the speeches tonight when six of the Republican candidates flocked to Iowa to tout their credentials to a crowd of more than a thousand social conservatives, a group whose support will be pivotal to winning the first caucus state this January.
While the candidates sold themselves to the social conservatives of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, they focused on stressing their commitment to anti-abortion rights initiatives.
“Pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience, it is a core conviction,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the crowd as he listed the anti-abortion rights legislation he signed into law in the state of Texas.
Perry, who has fallen in the polls as Herman Cain has experienced a meteoric rise, was quick to pounce on the former Godfathers Pizza CEO for a comment earlier this week that was taken as supportive of abortion rights.
“It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of that decision,” Perry said, without naming Cain. “If that is your view, you are not pro-life, you are pro having your cake and eating it too. We respect life, we respect life as a gift of God and what God has created, we should always work to protect.”
Cain fought back, telling the press Perry is resorting to tactics to discredit him.
“That is not true. He obviously did not take a look at the statement that I issued to clarify, I am pro-life. I have said it I don’t know how many times,” Cain said. “That is an attempt to try and discredit me.”
Cain launched a firestorm Wednesday evening when he suggested the government should not be involved in decisions on abortion.
“It’s not the government’s role or anybody’s role to make that decision,” Cain said Wednesday in an interview on CNN.
Cain attempted to stem the criticism today by simply explaining his position against abortion.
“Life from conception, no abortions, no exceptions,” Cain said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., expressed her commitment to implementing anti-abortion rights legislation, telling the crowd this is the year social conservatives “can have it all.”
“I support a constitutional amendment to define life from conception until natural death, and I would support all pro-life language that comes across my desk,” Bachmann said.
Bachmann, who once was a favorite in Iowa circles and was born and raised in the state, also went after Cain, but on a different topic — his suggestion that the United States should consider releasing terrorists from Guantanamo in exchange for American soldiers held hostage by al Qaeda.
“I would never consider negotiating and releasing the hostages of the Guantanamo Bay in a hostage release. That is something we cannot do,” she said. ” We had the mastermind of the 9-1-1 disaster and tragedy Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who is in Guantanamo Bay. We would never consider negotiating those terrorists, committed terrorists, for American in a hostage situation.”
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, shared an emotional story of his newborn son’s death, which occurred as he was working to pass a partial-birth abortion ban in Congress.
“You want to know why I’m pro-life? God showed me if you are faithful, he will be faithful,” Santorum told the crowd, who fell silent as the former senator shared his personal family story.
Santorum also knocked Cain for the abortion comments, saying they are “right out of the pro-choice playbook.”
“I just can’t conceive [that] coming out of someone who says that they’re pro-life,” Santorum said. “It just would never come out of my mouth. It would never come out of anybody who has an understanding of what the pro-life movement is about and so I understand he’s backtracked, but it’s not the first time he’s said it.”
He said Cain’s political inexperience may be showing, and suggested that Cain himself might not know where he stands on a variety of issues in his “first real run for office and a serious campaign.”
“I think he’s still finding his way through,” Santorum said. “This is a pretty big and important race to be finding your way through issues, particularly on issues of this fundamental importance.”
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, discussed his monetary policy positions, even pointing to passages from the Bible about gold.
Drawing the biggest standing ovation of the night, Newt Gingrich charmed the crowd, telling them he’d end all of the White House czars, defund Planned Parenthood and lead Republicans to victory over President Obama in 2012.
“We can have a dramatically better Christmas in 2012 if it’s a goodbye Obama Christmas,” Gingrich said. “If you want a great Christmas, vote against Obama.”
Evangelical Christians lifted Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and each of the six candidates speaking before the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition are hoping to lure those voters to their campaigns for a similar outcome.
Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney were the lone candidates to not attend the Iowa event. Romney spent the day campaigning in New Hampshire.